Reclaiming the poeticality of theology Denying the idolatry of methodology
The language of theology cannot be, and should not attempt to be, clear and precise, since such technical language always misses a part of that which it attempts to disclose. Raimon Panikkar
Raimon Panikkar alludes to a poetic language of theology. For Panikkar, theology is not a systematic, scientific, methodological treatise; rather it is aesthetical, liturgical and imaginative. However, the theologians like Karl Barth who define theology as dogmatics and a ‘guild discipline’ provide theology a systematic methodological framework. As Panikkar denotes, theology as a scientific, methodological and technical language loses its spontaneity and poeticality. The over emphasize on methodology in recent times, delimits theological engagement to a scientific program and thereby theology becomes a ‘closed discipline’ of the ‘ghettoized communities’—the seminaries and divinity schools. Theology has to be liberated from the idolatry of methodology and the fixity of its dogmatics. Its esthetical, liturgical and imaginative style of language is to be retained and reclaimed in order to make it more public and social. This essay offers a discussion on the poetic language of theology as it tries to re-locate itself in the post-foundational epistemological context.
It was the Enlightenment epistemology in the modern period that demanded Christian theology to have a systematic foundation of knowledge and methodology of articulation. The problem with this methodological sensitivity is that theology becomes yet another scientific discipline and thereby it loses its creative and imaginative content. Another important criticism aroused against the methodological ‘disciplinization’ of theology was that the modern Christian theology had never been the language of the non-European life-worlds. Thus, Christian theology or theologies in the post-Enlightenment / post-Western context has to be post-foundationalist and post-colonial in content. It needs to de-dogmatize itself and re-place itself with the aesthetical articulations of the suffering people in the postcolonial world. In order to re-define theology as a creative, critical and imaginative poetical engagement in the post-foundationalist/ postcolonial context, this essay initiates some discussions on the contemporary methodological contentions and theological significations.
1. Theology as Theopoiesis
To locate theology in a post-foundational epistemological context, the antidogmatic contemporary theologians who follow the panentheistic tradition such as Roland Faber, Catherine Keller, Luke B. Higgins, Sharon D. Welch and so on define theology as theopoiesis. The Greek word poiesis which originally means ‘to create’ or ‘to make’ signifies ‘an action that transforms and continues the world’. The theologians who follow the theopoetic tradition locate theology in two foci: poetry and multiplicity. Here, theology becomes independent and polyphonic. It is well explained in the following sentence:
The rediscovery of Continental roots of the philosophical criticism of theological language and its new embrace, respectively became another source of the claim of theology to be essentially not a dogmatic system of certain knowledge of God or ultimate reality and the human response to it, but either a response of infinite variability in face of the divine mystery or, in a different adaptation of postmodern stances, a bulwark against a nihilism with the rediscovery of old knowledges of the divine enshrined in the divers traditions of religious communities and their written witnesses.
Theology in this theopoetic sense becomes more creative (spontaneous, organic and aesthetical), critical (encounter, interrogation and prophetic), and imaginative (alluric, enigmatic and apocalyptic). Theopoiesis is a process of being and becoming to be a part of the social ontology of salvation. Thus doing theology in this theopoetic tradition is ontological in content as it invokes us to be part of the common ontology of redemption which is inherent within. The salvific experience is defined here as common, multiple and potential within.
In theopoiesis, God is named as poet by which it is refrained from defining God as a person, a force, a substance, a cosmic law or not even as a fixed concept. On the other hand, God is considered as a creative process of becoming of the creation from within. God is understood here as the ultimate novelty of creation or as the organic potentiality of creativity. According to this tradition, theologians are participants of the creative process of becoming and belonging. For them, theological is always epistemological and ontological. Thus, Sharon D. Welch exhorts theologians: “Let us be artisans, artisans of hope, artisans of wonder, working with human longing for generosity, courage, forgiveness, and resilience. As artisans, let us craft together flourishing communities of honesty, inclusion, justice, self-critique and hope.”
2. Theology as Theopolitic
Mark Lewis Taylor, in his well-read book The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World’ distinguishes between ‘Theology’ and ‘theological.’ For Taylor, ‘Theology’ is a ‘guild discipline,’ ‘a credentialed profession in the ‘Christian West’ that typically reflects on doctrines of a religious tradition and fosters an ethos of transcendence.’ Taylor defines ‘Theology’ as a strict discipline in terms of its dogmatic rigidity and doctrinal fixity. The ‘theological,’ on the other hand, is a “spectral haunting Theology, which is already unsettling it, perhaps dissolving it, disseminating it anew among other languages and other disciplinary discourses—on the way to revealing something much more significant than Theology’s doctrinally structured ethos of transcendence.”
Taylor proposes ‘theological,’ in contrast to ‘Theology,’ as a dimension of agonistic political thought and practice. Unlike the dominant ethos of Theology, which is transcendental and dogmatic, Taylor’s theological finds its fullest expression in the ‘prodigious force of artful signs deployed in spectral practice, and it is born of the struggle of those bearing, resisting, and finding life under “the weight of the world,” particularly that weight as shifted, or concentrated, in structures of imposed social suffering.’ Taylor argues that the projection of a transcendent outside as a sustaining precondition, ‘Theology’ always shows its “imperio-colonial sense.” He locates his political theorization of the theological in the political philosophies of immanent transcendence such as that of Spivak, Zizek, Badiou, Ranciere and Nancy.
Catherine Keller, the prominent postcolonial theologian, in a similar way of thought, defines contemporary theological engagement as theopolic since it is aesthetical and eschatological rather than doctrinal and dogmatic. According to Keller, theology in the contemporary context would uphold a “rhizomatic radicality” which is founded on a “polydoxic” philosophical/ theoretical inheritance. Keller contends that “such rhizomatic radicality is not about uprooting our traditions but about exposing them to our confounding togetherness—as species, peoples, genders, sexualities, races, religions, even—Lord help us—our Christianities.” The Christianity, not only theology, is invited here to validate the multiplicity of its being, becoming, and belonging in this planet earth. For John D. Caputo, theological is an act of theopolitic as it re-examines our theological presuppositions. For Caputo, theopolitic is nothing but thinking theology differently, which means to think about God otherwise, to reimagine God as a de-ontological de-Other. In short, the theopolitical tradition de-dogmatize and de-doctrinize theology and evokes us to look at the artistic imaginations of the tortured people as they envision theology on the weight of the world.
3. Contemporary Methodological Significations
The contemporary epistemological context demands certain methodological focuses that are so significant not only for theological researches but also for all the social researches.
The African human expereince constantly appears in the discourse of our times as an experience that can only be understood through a ‘negative interpretation.’ Africa is never seen as possesing things and attributes properly part of “human nature.” Or, when it is, its things and attributes are generally of lesser value, little importance, and poor qulity. It is this elementariness and primitiveness that makes Africa the world par excellence of all that is incomplete, mutilated, and unfinished, its history reduced to a series of setbacks of nature in its quest for humankind.
In his ground breaking work On the Postcolony, Achille Mbembe, the African theoretician, problematizes the power involved in the construction of the African subjectivity. He argues that the colonial interpretation of Africa has always been negative. He writes: “Africa is never seen as possessing things and attributes properly part of human nature.” Mbembe brings out the crucial inadequacy of the Western methodological imaginary to accept the idea of a common human nature, a humanity shared with others. In this crucial epistemological juncture, Mbembe demands a methodological shift in social researches—the postcolonial turn—in order to de-other the other and to de-self the self. Mbembe contends that the flesh and blood of the ‘African other’ is not just a ‘thing’ as it was conceived by the Western colonial thinking; rather it is ‘something’ that interrogates both the Western colonial imagination and its politics of death (necropolitics). Here, Mbembe interrogates the settled conviction about the epistemological normativity of the researcher. Researcher has to de-self him/her self and de-other the other. This process of ‘de-essentialization’ (Roland Faber) is termed by Mbembe as postcoloniality. Postcoloniality, for Mbembe, is not just a counter space of cultural re-imagination of de-othering of the colonized other; rather it is something political on the flesh and blood of the tortured other that envision a common human ontology. Here, the research methodology meets epistemology and ontology and research becomes a process of becoming and belonging in the planet earth.
Kallel Pokudan, a dalit activist, explains how he has become an eco-political activist. Kallel Pokkudan says it was his search for a de-casteist identity that led to him to a planetary agency. He had three specific options before him to reject his caste identity: one is to embrace communism and to become a Pulaya-communist. Later he came to the understanding that communist party can never understand the life of a dalit. Second option was to embrace Christianity and to become a Pulaya-Christian. Accepting the fact that a Pulayan can never be an integral part of the church in Kerala, he rejected that possibility. The third option was to become an activist for his Pulaya-community. But he realized that at that time Pulaya community was not capable enough to accommodate a self reflexive-communist activist. He writes: “For a long time I didn’t do anything. Then I slowly started to preserve the kandal [mangrove plants] nearby my house. It is how I become kandal Pokkudan.”
(Kandal pokkudan is not just a name; rather it is his life, politics, and becoming/ belonging himself—of course a political ontology of planetarity).
Planetarity is a methodological contention offered by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. With planetarity, Spivak envisions a de-othered space that invokes us to see ourselves through the eyes of the others. It is an invitation to live in an enigmatic relationship with the other, God and the earth. It is not one of romantic imagination but one that reflects the ethical practice of human beings as planetary subjects. Planetarity informs us about the interconnectivity between humanity and non-humanity. It is to re-imagine our identity and agency as a multiple site of the process of our becoming and belonging. While constructing a materialist political ontology, Jane Bennett contends that “human agency is always an assemblage of microbes, animals, plants, metals, chemicals, word-sounds, and the like—indeed, that is an agentic assemblage.” Planetary reminds us our intersubjectivity, biohistorical agency, and political ontology of becoming. Planetarity takes us beyond the binary thinking and the idolatry of identity. Theological research is not just a scientific program to prove something for the academia; rather to become something. It is to affirm our common belonging in this planet earth and to reassure our biohistorical agency. Becoming planetary agents is to deny the binary thinking and fixity of identity. Here, identity becomes fluid, relational and eschatological which can never be the same—the original.
Christian tradition does not refer to a singular lineage, nor do Christians speak with one voice even when they attend to the same line of scripture. In this sense, the Christian tradition is always polydox; it is irreducible to any one voice or lineage that may claim exhaustively to represent Christian faith, thought, and practice. This characteristic complexity is wrought of interweaving cultures and stories, of shifting agonisms and political pressures, of myriad communal practices, artistic media, and philosophical schools. Thus multiplicity becomes a source of richness and revelatory possibility for supple theologies that remain open to the ongoing participation of divinity in the world.
Polydoxy is a methodological position offered by Catherine Keller and Laurel C. Schneider to address the reductive or overarching tendencies of Christian Theology and to suggest the multiple forms of right belief (orthodoxy) in the contemporary multi-religious context. It is intended to locate Christian Theology in the post-Christendom era in its inherent multiplicity and relationality over against its epistemological enclosure. According to Keller and Schneider, Christian theology has to retain its polydoxical inheritances in order to re-imagine it in the post-Western era. Methodologically speaking, polydoxy offers a radical methodology of doing theology of religion in the contemporary post-religion/ post-secular context. It helps Christian Theology to go beyond the imagined dichotomies of theism and atheism; monotheism and polytheism; sacred and secular; spirituality and materiality, and religion and politics. Polydoxy demands Christian Theology to nullify its ‘transcendental ethos’—the legitimizing point outside that renders Christianity as the epitome of religion and to re-locate itself in a theological framework of the crucified God/ religiosity.
Christian Theology has to be liberated from the idolatry of methodology. Doing theology is to participate in the process of transforming the world. It is to participate in the act of theopoiesis which is organic, spontaneous and creative within. Methodology of theology, thus, is epistemological and ontological in the process of becoming an act of love and life in this planet earth. Here, the act of doing theology becomes embodied, enmattered and immanent. The contemporary theological methodology envisages a polydoxical ground through which it overcomes the binaries of secular/ sacred, religion/ politics, theism/ atheism, spirit and matter, God and the world. The methodological contentions offered by the postcolonial life-worlds invoke Christian Theology to be a planetary theology as it overcomes the binary thinking and the idolatry of identity. Planetarity helps Christian theology to de-other the other and to deconstruct the textuality of the con-text. The contemporary methodological contentions demand Indian Christian Theology to take a new turn, a radical turn, of course, a postcolonial turn where nothing is absolute, fixed, and the original; but everything is fluid, relational, polydoxical and eschatological.
Article published in SATHRI JOURNAL Vol.XI No.1 April 2017
 Lecture given at the methodological seminar organized by South Asia Theological Research Institute (SATHRI) at United Theological College, Bangalore on 3rd June 2016.
 Raimon Panikkar, The Rhythm of Being: The Gifford Lectures (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbs Books, 2009), 200.
 Roland Faber and Jeremy Fackenthal, “The Manifold of Theopoetics” Introduction, Theopoetic Folds: Philosophizing Multifariousness (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 3.
 Mark Lewis Taylor, The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), xi.
 John D. Caputo and Catherine Keller, Crosscurrents, Winter 2007, 105-11 at 108.
 Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2001), 1.
 Ibid, 2.
 Pokkudan, Kandalkadukalkidayil Ente Jeevitham (My Life among Kandal plants)(Kottayam: DC Books, 2002),65.
 Catherine Keller and Laurel C. Schneider, Introduction in Polydoxy: Theology of Multiplicity and Relation, Catherine Keller and Laurel C. Schneider, eds. (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), 2.